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Whitmer's fundraising strategy an 'illegal scheme,' conservative group says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The leader of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund filed on Wednesday a campaign finance complaint against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's reelection committee, contending it committed "the largest money grab ever seen in Michigan to ignore contribution limits."

State law bars candidates for governor in Michigan from receiving more than $7,150 from individual donors and rulings that allow officeholders facing recalls to accept unlimited amounts are invalid, argued Tori Sachs, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, in a complaint filed with the state Bureau of Elections.

"If your office refuses to enforce Michigan law against Governor Whitmer, then you can be sure that candidates will also take advantage of the newly created 'Whitmer Loophole,'"  Sachs said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at Dow Diamond on Thursday in Midland, Mich.

On Monday, the Democratic governor's campaign submitted its fundraising disclosure for the first seven months of 2021. The document revealed a record fundraising amount for the time frame, $8.6 million, but also about $3.4 million in contributions from donors whose giving surpassed the $7,150 individual donor cap. Five donors gave at least $250,000 each.

Supporters of the governor said she could do it because she was facing recall campaigns. Decisions in the 1980s from then-Secretary of State Richard Austin allowed an officeholder fighting a recall to raise unlimited amounts from donors.

In response to the new complaint, Mark Fisk, Whitmer's campaign spokesman, labeled the claims "bogus" and "without merit."

"There have been nearly 30 recall petitions filed against Gov. Whitmer, and governors under threat of recall are exempt from campaign finance limits to defend themselves," Fisk said.

In 1983, Austin ruled that a Michigan officeholder can accept contributions that exceed normal limits if the officeholder's recall is "actively being sought." To allow committees aiming to recall officeholders to raise unlimited amounts while not allowing the officeholders to do so would be "absurd and unfair," Austin said.

But Sachs contended Wednesday that Austin's ruling was improper because Michigan lawmakers set contribution limits for candidates based on election cycles. The secretary of state didn't have the power to allow officeholders to exceed the legislatively imposed caps, Sachs said.

Her complaint will be handled by the Bureau of Elections, which falls under Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. Sachs suggested the bureau should investigate and require the Whitmer campaign to return "the improperly obtained funds."

Even if the secretary of state rulings from the 1980s were valid, recalls are not being actively sought against Whitmer to allow for excess contributions, Sachs argued. The most recent recall petition approved by the Board of State Canvassers expired April 29, she said. Three of Whitmer's largest contributions of $250,000 or more arrived after that date, according to disclosures.

However, supporters of the governor's legal strategy have said ongoing litigation launched by Whitmer's campaign over whether the recall petitions should have been approved by the Board of State Canvassers means the petitions are still alive.

They've also said new recall petitions that continue to go before the board, including earlier this week, mean there is still an active recall.

Whitmer should not have to spend resources dedicated to the 2022 election on fighting recalls, said Steve Liedel, an attorney who served as general counsel to the governor's transition team.

Likewise, Mark Brewer, an attorney and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the ongoing litigation keeps the unlimited fundraising window open.

cmauger@detroitnews.com